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Using Wikipedia in the Composition Classroom and Beyond: Encyclopedic “Neutrality,” Social Inequality, and Failure as Subversion

Abstract

Instructors who use Wikipedia in the classroom typically focus on teaching students how to adopt the encyclopedia’s content practices so that they can improve their writing style and research skills, and conclude with an Edit-a-Thon that invites them to address Wikipedia’s social inequalities by writing entries about minority groups. Yet these approaches do not sufficiently highlight how Wikipedia’s social inequalities function at the level of language itself. In this article, I outline a pedagogical approach that invites students to examine the ways that language and politics shape, and are shaped by, each other on Wikipedia. In the case of my Spring 2020 class, my approach encouraged students to examine the relationship between Wikipedia’s content policies and white supremacy, and Wikipedia’s claims to neutrality. I also draw on the Edit-A-Thon that I organized at the end of the unit to show how instructors can extend a critical engagement with Wikipedia by building in moments of failure, in addition to success. In the process, my pedagogical approach reminds instructors—especially in composition and writing studies—to recognize that it is impossible to teach writing decoupled from the politics of language.

Wikipedia has become a popular educational tool over the last two decades, especially in the fields of composition and writing studies. The online encyclopedia’s “anyone-can-edit” ethos emphasizes the collective production of informative writing for public audiences, and instructors have found that they can use it to teach students about writing processes such as citation, collaboration, drafting, editing, research, and revision, in addition to stressing topics such as audience, tone, and voice (Purdy 2009, 2010; Hood 2009; Vetter, McDowell, and Stewart 2019; Xing and Vetter 2020). Composition courses that use Wikipedia have thus begun to follow a similar pattern. Students examine Wikipedia’s history, examine the way its three content policies (Neutral point-of-view [NPOV], no original research, and verifiability) govern how entries are written and what research sources are cited, and discuss the advantages and limits of Wikipedia’s open and anonymous community of volunteer contributors. Then, as a final assignment, instructors often ask students to edit an existing Wikipedia entry or write their own. By contrast, instructors in fields like cultural studies, feminism, and postcolonialism foreground Wikipedia’s social inequalities by asking students to examine how its largely white and male volunteer editors have resulted in the regrettable lack of topics about women and people of color (Edwards 2015; Pratesi, Miller, and Sutton 2019; Rotramel, Parmer, and Oliveira 2019; Montez 2017; Koh and Risam n.d.). When they ask students to edit or write Wikipedia entries, these instructors also invite students to focus on minority groups or underrepresented topics, thus transforming the typical final assignment into one that mirrors the Edit-A-Thons hosted by activist groups like Art + Feminism.

The socially conscious concerns that instructors in cultural studies, feminism, and postcolonialism have raised are compelling because they foreground Wikipedia’s power dynamics. When constructing my own first-year undergraduate writing course at the University of Virginia, then, I sought to combine these concerns with the general approach instructors in composition and writing studies are using. In the Fall 2019 iteration of my course, my students learned about topics like collaborative writing and citation, in addition to examining academic and journalistic articles about the encyclopedia’s racial and gender inequalities. The unit concluded with a two-day Edit-A-Thon focused on African American culture and history. The results seemed fabulous: my brilliant students produced almost 20,000 words on Wikipedia, and created four new entries—one about Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Book Center and three about various anti-slavery periodicals.[1] In their reflection papers, many conveyed that Edit-A-Thons could help minority groups and topics acquire greater visibility, and argued that the encyclopedia’s online format accelerates and democratizes knowledge production.

Yet, as an instructor, I felt that I had failed to sufficiently emphasize how Wikipedia’s content policies also played a role in producing the encyclopedia’s social inequalities. Although I had devoted a few classes to those policies, the approaches I adapted for my unit from the composition and the cultural studies fields meant my students only learned how to adopt those policies—not how to critically interrogate them. The articles we read also obscured how these policies relate to the encyclopedia’s social inequalities because scholars and journalists often conceptualize such inequalities in terms of proportion, describing how there is more or less information about this particular race or that particular gender (Lapowsky 2015; Cassano 2015; Ford 2011; Graham 2011; John 2011). Naturally, then, that’s how our students learn to frame the issue, too—especially when the Edit-A-Thons we organize for them focus on adding (or subtracting) content, rather than investigating how Wikipedia’s inequalities also occur due to the way the encyclopedia governs language. Similar observations have been raised by feminist instructors like Leigh Gruwell, who has found that Wikipedia’s policies “exclude and silence feminist ways of knowing and writing” and argued that current pedagogical models have not yet found ways to invoke Wikipedia critically (Gruwell 2015).[2]

What, then, might a pedagogical model that does invoke Wikipedia critically look like? I sought to respond to this question by creating a new learning goal for the Wikipedia unit in the Spring 2020 iteration of my course. This time around, I would continue to encourage my students to use Wikipedia’s content policies to deepen their understanding of the typical topics in a composition course, but I would also invite them to examine how those policies create—and then conceal—inequalities that occur at the linguistic level. In this particular unit, we concentrated on how various writers had used Wikipedia’s content policies to reinscribe white supremacy in an entry about UVa’s history. The unit concluded with an Edit-A-Thon where students conducted research on historical materials from UVa’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library to produce a Wikipedia page about the history of student activism at UVa. This approach did not yield the flashy, tweet-worthy results I saw in the Fall. But it is—to my mind—much more important, not only because it is influenced by postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak, who has demonstrated that neutrality or “objectivity” is impossible to achieve in language, but also because it prompted my students to discuss how language and politics shape, and are shaped by, each other. In the process, this approach also reminds instructors—especially in composition and writing studies—to recognize that it is impossible to teach writing decoupled from the politics of language. Indeed, Jiawei Xing and Matthew A. Vetter’s recent survey of 113 instructors who use Wikipedia in their classrooms reveals that they did so to develop their students’ digital communication, research, critical thinking, and writing skills, but only 40% of those instructors prompted their students to engage with the encyclopedia’s social inequalities as well (Xing and Vetter 2020). While the study’s participant pool is small and not all the instructors in that pool teach composition and writing courses, the results remain valuable because they suggest that current pedagogical models generally do not ask students to examine the social inequalities that Wikipedia’s content policies produce. This article therefore outlines an approach that I used to invite my students to explore the relationship between language and social inequalities on Wikipedia, with the hope that other instructors may improve upon, and then interweave, this approach into existing Wikipedia-based courses today.

Given that this introduction (and the argument that follows) stress a set of understudied issues in Wikipedia, however, my overall insistence that we should continue using Wikipedia in our classrooms may admittedly seem odd. Wouldn’t it make more sense, some might ask, to support those who have argued that we should stop using Wikipedia altogether? Perhaps—but I would have to be a fool to encourage my students to disavow an enormously popular online platform that is amassing knowledge at a faster rate than any other encyclopedia in history, averages roughly twenty billion views a month, and shows no signs of slowing down (“Wikimedia Statistics – All Wikis” n.d.). Like all large-scale projects, the encyclopedia contains problems—but, as instructors, we would do better to equip our students with the skills to address such problems when they arise. The pedagogical approach that I describe in this paper empowers our students to identify some problems directly embedded in Wikipedia’s linguistic structures, rather than studying demographic data about the encyclopedia alone. Only when these internal dynamics are grasped can the next generation then begin to truly reinvent one of the world’s most important platforms in the ways that they desire.

1. Wikipedia’s Neutrality Problem

Wikipedia’s three interdependent content policies—no original research, verifiability, and neutral point of view—are a rich opportunity for students to critically engage with the encyclopedia. Neutral point of view is the most non-negotiable policy of the three, and the Wikipedia community defines it as follows:

Neutral point of view (NPOV) … means representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias, all the significant views that have been published by reliable sources about the topic … [it means] carefully and critically analyzing a variety of reliable sources and then attempting to convey to the reader the information contained in them fairly, proportionally … including all verifiable points of view. (“Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View” 2020)

Brief guidelines like “avoid stating opinions as facts” and “prefer nonjudgmental language” (“Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View” 2020) follow this definition. My students in both semesters fixated on these points and the overall importance of eschewing “editorial bias” when engaging with NPOV for the first time—and for good reason. A writing style that seems to promise fact alone is particularly alluring to a generation who has grown up on fake news and photoshopped Instagram bodies. It is no surprise, then, that my students responded enthusiastically to the first writing exercise I assigned, which asks them to pick a quotidian object and describe it from what they understood to be a neutral point of view as defined by Wikipedia. The resulting pieces were well-written. When I ran my eyes over careful descriptions about lamps, pillows, and stuffed animals, I glimpsed what Purdy and the composition studies cadre have asserted: that writing for Wikipedia does, indeed, provoke students to write clearly and concisely, and pay closer attention to grammar and syntax.

Afterwards, however, I asked my students to consider the other part of NPOV’s definition: that the writer should proportionally articulate multiple perspectives about a topic (“Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View” 2020). A Wikipedia entry about our planet, for example, would include fringe theories claiming the Earth is flat—but a writer practicing NPOV would presumably ensure that these claims do not carry what Wikipedians describe as “undue weight” over the scientific sources which demonstrate that the Earth is round. Interestingly, the Wikipedia community’s weighing rhetoric associates the NPOV policy with the archetypal symbol of justice: the scales. Wikipedians do not merely summarize information. By adopting NPOV, they appear to summarize information in the fairest way. They weigh out different perspectives and, like Lady Justice, their insistence on avoiding editorial bias seems to ensure that they, too, are metaphorically “blindfolded” to maintain impartiality.

Yet, my students and I saw how NPOV’s “weighing” process, and Wikipedia’s broader claims to neutrality, quickly unraveled when we compared a Wikipedia entry to another scholarly text about the same subject. Comparing and contrasting texts is a standard pedagogical strategy, but the exercise—when raised in relation to Wikipedia—is often used to emphasize how encyclopedic language differs from fiction, news, or other writing genres, rather than provoking a critical engagement with Wikipedia’s content policies. In my Spring 2020 course, then, I shifted the purpose of this exercise. This time around, we compared and contrasted two documents—UVa’s Wikipedia page and Lisa Woolfork’s “‘This Class of Persons’: When UVa’s White Supremacist Past Meets Its Future”—to study the limits of Wikipedia’s NPOV policy.

Both documents construct two very different narratives to describe UVa’s history. My students and I discovered that their differences are most obvious when they discuss why Thomas Jefferson established UVa in Charlottesville, and the role that enslaved labor played in constructing the university:

Wikipedia Woolfork
In 1817, three Presidents (Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison) and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court John Marshall joined 24 other dignitaries at a meeting held in the Mountain Top Tavern at Rockfish Gap. After some deliberation, they selected nearby Charlottesville as the site of the new University of Virginia. [24]. (“University of Virginia” 2020) On August 1, 1818, the commissioners for the University of Virginia met at a tavern in the Rockfish Gap on the Blue Ridge. The assembled men had been charged to write a proposal … also known as the Rockfish Gap Report. … The commissioners were also committed to finding the ideal geographical location for this undertaking [the university]. Three choices were identified as the most propitious venues: Lexington in Rockbridge County, Staunton in Augusta County, and Central College (Charlottesville) in Albemarle County. … The deciding factor that led the commissioners to choose Albemarle County as the site for the university was exclusively its proximity to white people. The commissioners observed, “It was the degree of the centrality to the white population of the state which alone then constituted the important point of comparison between these places: and the board … are of the opinion that the central point of the white population of the state is nearer to the central college….” (Woolfork 2018, 99–100)
Like many of its peers, the university owned slaves who helped build the campus. They also served students and professors. The university’s first classes met on March 7, 1825. (“University of Virginia” 2020) For the first fifty years of its existence, the university relied on enslaved labor in a variety of positions. In addition, enslaved workers were tasked to serve students personally. … Jefferson believed that allowing students to bring their personal slaves to college would be a corrosive influence. … [F]aculty members, however, and the university itself owned or leased enslaved people. (Woolfork 2018, 101)

Table 1. Comparison of Wikipedia and Woolfork on why Thomas Jefferson established UVa in Charlottesville, and the role that enslaved labor played in constructing the university

Although the two Wikipedia extracts “avoid stating opinions as facts,” they expose how NPOV’s requirement that a writer weigh out different perspectives to represent all views “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible” is precisely where neutrality breaks down. In the first pair of extracts, the Wikipedia entry gives scant information about why Jefferson selected Charlottesville. Woolfork’s research, however, outlines that what contributors summarized as “some deliberation” was, in fact, a discussion about locating the university in a predominantly white area. The Wikipedia entry cites source number 24 to support the summary, but the link leads to a Shenandoah National Park guide that highlights Rockfish Gap’s location, instead of providing information about the meeting. Woolfork’s article, by contrast, carefully peruses the Rockfish Gap Report, which was produced in that meeting.

One could argue, as one of my students did, that perhaps Wikipedia’s contributors had not thought to investigate why Jefferson chose Charlottesville, and therefore did not know of the Rockfish Gap Report’s existence—and that is precisely the point. The Wikipedia entry’s inclusion of all three Presidents and the Chief Justice suggests that, when “weighing” different sources and pursuing a range of perspectives about the university’s history, previous contributors decided—whether knowingly or unconsciously—that describing who was at the meeting was a more important viewpoint. They fleshed out a particular strand of detail that would cement the university’s links to American nationalism, rather than inquire how and why Charlottesville was chosen. An entry that looks comprehensive, balanced, well-cited, and “neutral,” then, inevitably prioritizes certain types of information based on the information and the lines of inquiry its contributors choose to expand upon.

The second pair of extracts continue to reveal the fractures in the NPOV policy. Although Woolfork’s research reveals that the university used enslaved labor for the first 50 years, the only time the 10,000-word Wikipedia entry mentions slavery is buried within the three sentences I copied above, which undercuts NPOV’s claims to proportionality. Moreover, the first sentence carefully frames the university’s previous ownership of slaves as usual practice (“like many of its peers”). It is revealing that the sentence does not gaze, as it has done for the majority of the paragraph where this extract is located, on UVa alone—but expands outward to include all universities when conveying this specific fact about slavery. Interestingly, these facts about enslaved labor also come before the sentence about the university’s first day of classes. This means that the entry, which has so far proceeded in chronological fashion, suddenly experiences a temporal warp. It places the reader within the swing of the university’s academic life when it conveys that students and professors benefitted from enslaved labor, only to pull the reader backwards to the first day of classes in the next sentence, as though it were resetting the clock.

I want to stress that the purpose of this exercise was not to examine whether Woolfork’s article is “better” or “truer” than the Wikipedia entry, nor was it an opportunity to undercut the writers of either piece. Rather, the more complex concept my students grappled with was how the article and the entry demonstrate why the true/false—or neutral/biased—binaries that Wikipedia’s content policies rely on are themselves flawed. One could argue that both pieces about UVa are “true,” but the point is that they are slanted differently. The Wikipedia entry falls along an exclusively white axis, while Woolfork’s piece falls along multiple axes—Black and white—and demonstrates how both are actually intertwined due to the university’s reliance on enslaved labor. From a pedagogical standpoint, then, this exercise pushed my students in two areas often unexplored in Wikipedia assignments.

First, it demonstrated to my students that although phrases like “editorial bias” in Wikipedia’s NPOV guidelines presuppose an occasion where writing is impartial and unadulterated, such neutrality does not—and cannot—exist. Instructors in composition studies often ask students to practice NPOV writing for Wikipedia to improve their prose. This process, however, mistakenly conveys that neutrality is an adoptable position even though the comparative exercise I outlined above demonstrates neutrality’s impossibility.

Second, the comparative exercise also demonstrated to my students that Wikipedia’s inequalities occur at the linguistic level as much as the demographic level. Instructors in cultural studies frequently host Edit-A-Thons for their students to increase content about minority cultures and groups on Wikipedia, but this does not address the larger problem embedded in NPOV’s “weighing” of different perspectives. The guidelines state that Wikipedians must weigh perspectives proportionally—but determining what proportionality is to begin with is up to the contributors, as evinced by the two Wikipedia extracts I outlined. Every time a writer weighs different sources and perspectives to write an entry, what they are really doing is slanting their entry along certain axes of different angles, shapes, shades, and sizes. In the articles my students read, the most common axis Wikipedians use, whether knowingly or unconsciously, is one that centers white history, white involvement, and white readers. For example, as my students later discovered in Wikipedia’s “Talk” page for the entry about UVa, when two editors were discussing whether the university’s history of enslaved labor rather than its honor code should be mentioned in the entry’s lead, one editor claimed that the enslaved labor was not necessarily “the most critical information that readers need to know” (“University of Virginia” 2020).[3] Which readers? Who do Wikipedians have in mind when they use that phrase? In this instance, we see how “weighing” different perspectives not only leads one to elevate one piece of information over another, but also one type of reader over another.

As instructors, we need to raise these questions about audience, perspective, and voice in Wikipedia for our students. It is not so much that we have not covered these topics: we just haven’t sufficiently asked our students to engage with the social implications of these topics, like race (and, as Gruwell has said so cogently, gender). One way to begin doing so is by inflecting our pedagogical approaches with the discoveries in fields such as postcolonial studies and critical race studies. For example, my pedagogical emphasis on the impossibility of neutrality as I have outlined it above is partially indebted to critics like Gayatri Spivak. Her work has challenged the western critic’s tendency to appear as though they are speaking from a neutral and objective perspective, and demonstrated how these claims conceal the ways that such critics represent and re-present a subject in oppressive ways (Spivak 1995). Although her scholarship is rooted in deconstructionism and postcolonial theory, her concerns about objectivity’s relationship to white western oppression intersects with US-based critical race theory, where topics like objectivity are central. Indeed, as Michael Omi and Howard Winant have explained, racism in the United States proliferated when figures like Dr. Samuel Morton established so-called “objective” biological measures like cranial capacity to devalue the Black community while elevating the white one (Omi and Winant 1994).

I mention these critics not to argue that one must necessarily introduce a piece of advanced critical race theory or postcolonial theory to our students when using Wikipedia in the composition classroom (although this would of course be a welcome addition for whoever wishes to do so). After all, I never set Spivak’s “Can The Subaltern Speak?” as reading for my students. But what she revealed to me about the impossibility of neutrality in that famous paper prompted me to ask my students about Wikipedia’s NPOV policy in our class discussions and during our comparative exercise, rather than taking that policy for granted and inviting my students to adopt it. If instructors judiciously inflect their pedagogical practices with the viewpoints that critical race theory and postcolonial theory provide, then we can put ourselves and our students in a better position to see how digital writing on sites like Wikipedia are not exempt from the dynamics of power and oppression that exist offline. Other areas in critical race theory and postcolonial theory can also be brought to bear on Wikipedia, and I invite others to uncover those additional links. Disciplinary boundaries have inadvertently created the impression that discoveries in postcolonialism or critical race theory should concern only the scholars working within those fields, but the acute sensitivity towards power, marginalization, and oppression that these fields exhibit mean that the viewpoints their scholars develop are relevant to any instructor who desires to foster a more socially conscious classroom.

2. The Edit-a-Thon: Failure as Subversion

Composition classes that use Wikipedia usually conclude with an assignment where students are invited to write their own entry. For cultural studies courses in particular, students address the lack of content about minority cultures or groups by participating in a themed Edit-A-Thon organized by their instructor. These Edit-A-Thons mirror the Edit-A-Thons hosted by social justice organizations and activism groups outside of the university. These groups usually plan Edit-A-Thons in ways that guarantee maximum success for the participants because many are generously volunteering their time. Moreover, for many participants, these Edit-A-Thons are the first time where they will write for Wikipedia, and if the goal is to inspire them to continue writing after the event, then it is crucial that their initial encounter with this process is user-friendly, positive, and productive. This is why these events frequently offer detailed tutorials on adopting Wikipedia’s content policies, and provide pre-screened secondary source materials that adhere to Wikipedia’s guidelines about “no original research” (writing about topics for which no reliable, published sources exist) and “verifiability” (citing sources that are reliable). Indeed, these thoughtful components at the Art + Feminism Edit-A-Thon event I attended a few years ago at the Guggenheim Museum ensured that I had a smooth and intellectually stimulating experience when I approached Wikipedia as a volunteer writer for the first time. It was precisely because this early experience was so rewarding that Wikipedia leapt to the forefront of my mind when I became an instructor, and was searching for ways to expand student interest in writing.

It is because I am now approaching Wikipedia as an instructor rather than a first-time volunteer writer, however, that I believe we can amplify critical engagement with the encyclopedia if we set aside “success” as an end goal. Of course, there is no reason why one cannot have critical engagement and success as dual goals, but when I was organizing the Edit-a-Thon in my class, I noticed that building in small instances of “failure” enriched the encounters that my students had with Wikipedia’s content policies.

The encyclopedia stipulates that one should not write about organizations or institutions that they are enrolled in or employed by, so I could not invite my students to edit the entry about UVa’s history itself. Instead, I invited them to create a new entry about the history of student activism at UVa using materials at our library.[4] When I was compiling secondary sources for my students, however, I was more liberal with this list in the Spring than I was in the Fall. Wikipedians have long preferred secondary sources like articles in peer-reviewed journals, books published by university presses or other respected publishing houses, and mainstream newspapers (“Wikipedia: No Original Research” 2020) to ensure that writers typically center academic knowledge when building entries about their topic. Thus, like the many social justice and non-profit organizations who host Edit-A-Thons, for Fall 2019 I pre-screened and curated sources that adhered to Wikipedia’s policies so that my students could easily draw from them for the Edit-A-Thon.

In Spring 2020, however, I invited my students to work with a range of primary and secondary sources—meaning that some historical documents like posters, zines, and other paraphernalia, either required different reading methods than academically written secondary sources, or were impossible to cite because to write about them would constitute as “original research.” Experiencing the failure to assimilate other documents and forms of knowledge that are not articulated as published texts can help students interrogate Wikipedia’s lines of inclusion and exclusion, rather than simply taking them for granted. For example, during one particularly memorable conversation with a student who was studying hand-made posters belonging to student activist groups that protested during UVa’s May Days strikes in 1950, she said that she knew she couldn’t cite the posters or their contents, but asked: “Isn’t this history, too? Doesn’t this count?”

By the end of the Spring Edit-a-Thon, my students produced roughly the same amount of content as the Fall class, but their reflection papers suggested that they had engaged with Wikipedia from a more nuanced perspective. As one student explained, a Wikipedia entry may contain features that signal professional expertise, like clear and formal prose or a thick list of references drawn from books published by university presses and peer-reviewed journals, but still exclude or misconstrue a significant chunk of history without seeming to do so.

A small proportion of my students, however, could not entirely overcome one particular limitation. Some continued describing Wikipedia’s writing style as neutral even after asserting that neutrality in writing was impossible in previous pages of their essay. It is possible that this dissonance occurred accidentally, or because such students have not yet developed a vocabulary to describe what that style was even when they knew that it was not neutral. My sense, however, is that this dissonance may also reflect the broader (and, perhaps, predominantly white) desire for the fantasy of impartiality that Wikipedia’s policies promise. Even if it is more accurate to accept that neutrality does not exist on the encyclopedia, this knowledge may create discomfort because it highlights how one has always already taken up a position on a given topic even when one believes they have been writing “neutrally” about it, especially when that topic is related to race. Grasping this particular point is perhaps the largest challenge facing both the student—and the instructor—in the pedagogical approach I have outlined.

Notes

[1] The results for the Fall 2019 Edit-A-Thon are here. The results for the Spring 2020 Edit-A-Thon are here.

[2] Some of those in composition studies, like Paula Patch and Matthew A. Vetter, partially address Gruwell’s call. Patch, for example, has constructed a framework for critically evaluating Wikipedia that prompts students to focus on authorship credibility, reliability, interface design, and navigation (Patch 2010), often by comparing various Wikipedia entries to other scholarly texts online or in print. By contrast, Vetter’s unit on Appalachian topics on Wikipedia focused on the negative representations of the region within a larger course that sought to examine the way that Appalachia is continually marginalized in mainstream media culture (Vetter 2018).

[3] An extract from the Talk page conversation:

Natureium removed the mention of slavery from the lead as undue. I don’t see why that fact would be undue, but the dozens and dozens of other facts in the lead are not. I mean, the university is known for its student-run honor code? Seriously? (None of the sources in the section on that topic seem to prove that fact.) In addition, I see language in the lead such as “UVA’s academic strength is broad”—if there’s work to be done on the lead, it should not be in the removal of a foundation built with slave labor. If anything, it balances out what is otherwise little more than a jubilation of UvA that could have been written by the PR department. Drmies (talk) 17:40, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

I think this is an area where we run into a difficult problem that plagues projects like Wikipedia that strive to reflect and summarize extant sources without publishing original research. As a higher ed scholar I agree that an objective summary of this (and several other U.S.) university [sic] would prominently include this information. However, our core policies restrict us from inserting our own personal and professional judgments into articles when those judgments are not also matched by reliable sources. So we can’t do this until we have a significant number of other sources that also do this. (I previously worked at a research center that had a somewhat similar stance where the director explained this kind of work to some of us as “we follow the leading edge, we don’t make it.”) ElKevbo (talk) 19:36, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

But here, UvA has acknowledged it, no? Drmies (talk) 20:52, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

Yes and there are certainly enough reliable sources to include this information in the article. But to include the information in the lede is to assert that it’s the most critical information that readers need to know about this subject and that is a very high bar that a handful of self-published sources are highly unlikely to cross. Do scholars and other authors include “was built by slaves” when they first introduce this topic or summarize it? If not, we should not do so. ElKevbo (talk) 21:27, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

[4] The COVID-19 pandemic, which began toward the end of our Edit-A-Thon, meant that my students and I were unable to clean up the draft page and sufficiently converse with other editors who had raised various concerns about notability and conflict of interest, so it is not yet published on Wikipedia. We hope to complete this soon. In the meantime, I want to note that had the pandemic not occurred, I would have presented the concerns of these external editors to my students, and used their comments as another opportunity to learn more about the way that Wikipedia prioritizes certain types of knowledge. The first concern was the belief that the history of student activism at UVa was not a notable enough topic for Wikipedia because there was not enough general news coverage about it. Although another editor later refuted this claim, the impulse to rely on news coverage to determine whether a topic was notable enough is interesting within the context of student activism, and other social justice protests more broadly. Activist movements are galvanized by the very premise that a particular minority group or issue has not yet been taken seriously by those in power, or by the majority of a population. Some protests, like the Black Lives Matter movement and Hong Kong’s “Revolution of our Times,” have gained enough news coverage across the globe to count as notable topic. Does that mean, however, that protests on a smaller scale, and with less coverage, are somehow less important?

The second concern about conflict of interest also raises another question: Does the conflict of interest policy prevent us (and others) from fulfilling UVa’s institutional responsibility to personally confront our university’s close relationships to enslaved labor, white supremacy, and colonization, and foreground the activist groups and initiatives within UVa that have tried to dismantle these relationships? If so, will—or should—Wikipedia’s policy change to accommodate circumstances like this? These are questions that I wish I had the opportunity to pose to my students.

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Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1995. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. 28–37. 2nd ed. Oxford: Routledge.

Wikipedia. 2020.“University of Virginia.” Last modified 2020. In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=University_of_Virginia&oldid=965972109.

Vetter, Matthew A. 2018. “Teaching Wikipedia: Appalachian Rhetoric and the Encyclopedic Politics of Representation.” College English 80, no. 5: 397–422.

Vetter, Matthew A., Zachary J. McDowell, and Mahala Stewart. 2019. “From Opportunities to Outcomes: The Wikipedia-Based Writing Assignment.” Computers and Composition 59: 53–64.

Wikipedia. “Wikimedia Statistics – All Wikis.” n.d. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://stats.wikimedia.org/#/all-projects.

Wikipedia. “Wikipedia:Neutral Point of View.” 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view&oldid=962777774.

Wikipedia. “Wikipedia:No Original Research.” 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:No_original_research&oldid=966320689.

Woolfork, Lisa. 2018. “‘This Class of Persons’: When UVA’s White Supremacist Past Meets Its Future.” In Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity, edited by Claudrena Harold and Louis Nelson. Charlottesville: UVA Press.

Xing, Jiawei, and Matthew A. Vetter. 2020. “Editing for Equity: Understanding Instructor Motivations for Integrating Cross-Disciplinary Wikipedia Assignments.” First Monday 25, no. 6. https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i6.10575.

Acknowledgments

My thanks must go first to John Modica, my wonderful friend and peer. I am so grateful for his insightful suggestions and constant support when I was planning this Wikipedia unit, for agreeing to pair up his students with mine for the ensuing Spring 2020 Edit-A-Thon and for one of our discussion sessions, and for introducing me to Lisa Woolfork’s excellent article when I was searching for a text for the compare and contrast exercise. I am also indebted to UVa’s Wikimedian-in-Residence, Lane Rasberry, and UVa Library’s librarians and staff—Krystal Appiah, Maggie Nunley, and Molly Schwartzburg—for their help when I hosted my Edit-A-Thons; Michael Mandiberg and Linda Marci for their detailed and rigorous readers’ comments; John Maynard for his smart feedback; Brandon Walsh for his encouragement from start to finish; Kelly Hammond, Elizabeth Alsop, and the editorial staff at JITP; UVa’s Writing and Rhetoric Program for their support; and all of my ENWR students in Fall 2019 and Spring 2020, and John Modica’s Spring 2020 ENWR students as well.

About the Author

Cherrie Kwok is a PhD Candidate and an Elizabeth Arendall Tilney and Schuyler Merritt Tilney Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia. She is also the Graduate English Students Association (GESA) representative to UVa’s Writing and Rhetoric Program for the 2020–21 academic year. Her interests include global Anglophone literatures (especially from the Victorian period onwards), digital humanities, poetry, and postcolonialism, and her dissertation examines the relationship between anti-imperialism and late-Victorian Decadence in the poetry and prose of a set of writers from Black America, the Caribbean, China, and India. Find out more about her here.

A sepia-toned stereoscopic image from the turn of the twentieth century depicts a woman in a drawing room, herself looking into a stereoscope.
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Interdisciplinarity and Teamwork in Virtual Reality Design

Abstract

Virtual Reality Design has been co-taught annually at Vanderbilt University since 2017 by professors Bobby Bodenheimer (Computer Science) and Ole Molvig (History, Communications of Science and Technology). This paper discusses the pedagogical and logistical strategies employed during the creation, execution, and subsequent reorganization of this course through multiple offerings. This paper also demonstrates the methods and challenges of designing a team-based project course that is fundamentally structured around interdisciplinarity and group work.

Introduction

What is virtual reality? What can it do? What can’t it do? What is it good/bad for? These are some of the many questions we ask on the first day of our course, Virtual Reality Design (Virtual Reality for Interdisciplinary Applications from 2017–2018). Since 2017, professors Ole Molvig of the History Department and Bobby Bodenheimer of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering have been co-teaching this course annually to roughly 50 students at a time. With each offering of the course, we have significantly revamped our underlying pedagogical goals and strategies based upon student feedback, the learning literature, and our own experiences. What began as a course about virtual reality has become a course about interdisciplinary teamwork.

Both of those terms, interdisciplinarity and teamwork, have become deeply woven into our effort. While a computer scientist and a historian teach the course, up to ten faculty mentors from across the university participate as “clients.” The course counts toward the computer science major’s project-class requirement, but nearly half the enrolled students are not CS majors. Agile design and group mechanics require organizational and communication skills above all else. And the projects themselves, as shown below, vary widely in the topic and demands, requiring flexibility, creativity, programming, artistry, and most significantly, collaboration.

This focus on interdisciplinary teamwork, and not just in the classroom, has led to a significant, if unexpected, outcome: the crystallization of a substantial community of faculty and students engaging in virtual reality related research from a wealth of disciplinary viewpoints. Equipment purchased for the course remain active and available throughout campus. Teaching projects have grown into research questions and collaborations. A significant research cluster in digital cultural heritage was formed not as a result of, but in synergy with, the community of class mentors, instructors, and students.

Evolution of the Course

Prior to offering the joint course, both Bodenheimer (CS) and Molvig (History) had previously offered single-discipline VR based courses.

From the Computer Science side, Bodenheimer had taught a full three-credit course on virtual reality to computer science students. In lecture and pedagogy this course covered a fairly standard approach to the material for a one semester course, as laid out by the Burea and Coiffet textbook or the more recent (and applicable) Lavalle textbook (Lavalle 2017). Topically, the course covered such material as virtual reality hardware, displays, sensors, geometric modeling, three-dimensional transformations, stereoscopic viewing, visual perception, tracking, and the evaluation of virtual reality experiences. The goal of the course was to teach the computer science students to analyze, design, and develop a complex software system in response to a set of computing requirements and project specifications that included usability and networking. The course was also project-based with teams of students completing the projects. Thus it focused on collaborative learning, and teamwork skills were taught as part of the curriculum, since there is significant work that shows these skills are best taught and do not emerge spontaneously (Kozlowski and Ilgen 2006). This practice allowed a project of significant complexity to be designed and implemented over the course of the semester, giving a practical focus to most of the topics covered in the lectures.

From History, Molvig offered an additional one credit “lab course” option for students attached to a survey of The Scientific Revolution. This lab option offered students the opportunity to explore the creation of and meaning behind historically informed re-constructions or simulations. The lab gave students their first exposure to a nascent technology alongside a narrative context in which to guide their explorations. Simultaneous to this course offering, Vanderbilt was increasing its commitment to the digital humanities, and this course allowed both its instructor and students to study the contours of this discipline as well. While this first offering of a digital lab experience lacked the firm technical grounding and prior coding experience of the computer science offering, the shared topical focus (the scientific revolution) made for boldly creative and ambitious projects within a given conceptual space.

Centering Interdisciplinarity

Unlike Bodenheimer, Molvig did not have a career-long commitment to the study of virtual reality. Molvig’s interest in VR comes rather from a science studies approach to emergent technology. And in 2016, VR was one of the highest profile and most accessible emergent technologies (alongside others such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, CRISPR, blockchain, etc). For Molvig, emergent technologies can be pithily described as those technologies that are about to go mainstream, that many people think are likely to be of great significance, but no one is completely certain when, for whom, how, or really even if, this will happen.

For VR then, in an academic setting, these questions look like this: Which fields is VR best suited for? Up to that point, it was reasonably common in computer science and psychology, and relatively rare elsewhere. How might VR be integrated into the teaching and research of other fields? How similar or dissimilar are the needs and challenges of these different disciplines pedagogical and research contexts?

Perhaps most importantly, how do we answer these questions? Our primary pedagogical approach crystallized around two fundamental questions:

  1. How can virtual reality inform the teaching and research of discipline X?
  2. How can discipline X inform the development of virtual reality experiences?

Our efforts to answer these questions led to the core feature that has defined our Virtual Reality Design course since its inception: interdisciplinarity. Rather than decide for whom VR is most relevant, we attempted to test it out as broadly as possible, in collaboration with as many scholars as possible.

Our course is co-taught by a computer scientist and a humanist. Furthermore, we invite faculty from across campus to serve as “clients,” each with a real-world, disciplinary specific problem toward which virtual reality may be applicable. While Molvig and Bodenheimer focused on both questions, our faculty mentors focused on question 1: is VR surgery simulation an effective tool? Can interactive, immersive 3D museums provide users new forms of engagement with cultural artifacts? How can VR and photogrammetry impact the availability of remote archeological sites? We will discuss select projects below, but as of our third offering of this course, we have had twenty-one different faculty serve as clients representing twelve different departments or schools, ranging from art history to pediatrics and chemistry to education. A full list of the twenty-four unique projects may be found in Appendix 1.

At the time of course planning, Vanderbilt began a program of University Courses, encouraging co-taught, cross disciplinary teaching experiments, incentivizing each with a small budget, which allowed us to purchase the hardware necessary to offer the course. One of our stated outcomes was to increase access to VR hardware, and we have intentionally housed the equipment purchased throughout campus. Currently, most available VR hardware available for campus use is the product of this course. Over time, purchases from our course have established 10 VR workstations across three different campus locations (Digital Humanities Center, The Wond’ry Innovation Center, and the School of Engineering Computer Lab). Our standard set up has been the Oculus Rift S paired with desktop PCs with minimum specs of 16GB RAM and 1080GTX GPUs.

As the design of the joint, team-taught and highly interdisciplinary course was envisioned, several course design questions presented themselves. In our first iteration of the course, a condensed and more accessible version of the computer science virtual reality class was lectured on. Thus Bodenheimer, the computer science instructor, lectured on most of the same topics he had lectured on but at a more general level, and focused on how the concepts were implemented in Unity, rather than from a more theoretical perspective that was present in the prior offering. Likewise, Molvig brought with him several tools of his discipline, a set of shared readings (such as the novel Ready Player One (Cline 2012)) and a response essay to the moral and social implications of VR. The class was even separated for two lectures, allowing Bodenheimer to lecture in more detail on C#, and Molvig to offer strategies on how to avoid C# entirely within Unity.

Subsequent offerings of the course, however, allowed us to abandon most of this structure, and to significantly revise the format. Our experience with how the projects and student teams worked and struggled led us to re-evaluate the format of the course. Best practices in teaching and learning recommend active, collaborative learning where students learn from their peers (Kuh et al. 2006). Thus, we adopted a structured format more conducive to teamwork, based on Agile (Pope-Ruark 2017). Agile is a framework and set of practices originally created for software development but which has much wider applicability today. It can be implemented as a structure in the classroom with a set of openly available tools that allow students to articulate, manage, and visualize a set of goals for a particular purpose, in our case, the creation of a virtual experience tailored to their clients specific research. The challenge for us, as instructors, was to develop methods to instrument properly the Agile methods so that the groups in our class can be evaluated on their use of them, and get feedback on them so that they can improve their practices. This challenge is ongoing. Agile methods are thus used in our class to help teams accomplish their collaborative goals and teach them teamwork practices.

Course Structure

We presume no prior experience with VR, the Unity3D engine, or C# for either the CS or non-CS students. Therefore the first third of the course is mainly focused on introducing those topics, primarily through lecture, demonstration, and a series of cumulative “daily challenges.” By the end of this first section of the course, all students are familiar with the common tools and practices, and capable of creating VR environments upon which they can act directly through the physics engine as well as in a predetermined, or scripted, manner. During the second third of the course, students begin working together on their group projects in earnest, while continuing to develop their skills through continued individual challenges, which culminate in an individual project due at the section’s end. For the second and third sections of the course, all group work incorporates aspects of the Agile method described above, with weekly in-class group standups, and a graded, bi-weekly sprint review, conducted before the entire class. The final section of the course is devoted entirely to the completion of the final group project, which culminates in an open “demo day” held during final examinations, which has proven quite popular.

Three-fifths of our students are upper level computer science students fulfilling a “project course” major requirement, while two-fifths of our students can be from any major except computer science. Each project team is composed of roughly five students with a similar overall ratio, and we tend to have about 50 students per offering. This distribution and size are enforced at registration because of the popularity of the CS major and demand for project courses in it. The typical CS student’s experience will involve at least three semesters of programming in Java and C++, but usually no knowledge of computer graphics or C#, the programming language used by Unity, our virtual reality platform. The non-CS students’ experience is more varied, but currently does not typically involve any coding experience. To construct the teams, we solicit bids from the students for their “top three” projects and “who they would like to work with.” The instructors then attempt to match students and teams so that everyone gets something that they want.

It is a fundamental assertion of this course that all members of a team so constructed can contribute meaningfully and substantially to the project. As it is perhaps obvious what the CS students contribute, it is important to understand what the non-CS students contribute. First, Unity is a sophisticated development platform that is quite usable, and, as mentioned, we spend significant course time teaching the class to use it. There is nothing to prevent someone from learning to code in C# using Unity. However, not everyone taking our class wants to be a coder, but they are interested in technology and using technical tools. Everyone can build models and design scenes in Unity. Also, these projects must be robust. Testing that incremental progress works and is integrated well into the whole project is key not only to the project’s success as a product, but also to the team’s grade. We also require that the teams produce documentation about their progress, and interact with their faculty mentor about design goals. These outward-facing aspects of the project are key to the project’s success and often done by the non-CS students. Each project also typically requires unique coding, and in our experience the best projects are one in which the students specialize into roles, as each project typically requires a significant amount of work. The Agile framework is key here, as it provides a structure for the roles and a way of tracking progress in each of them.

Since each project is varied, setting appropriate targets and evaluating progress at each review is one of the most significant ongoing challenges faced by the instructors.

Projects

A full list of the twenty-four projects may be found in Appendix 1.

Below are short descriptions and video walkthroughs of four distinctive projects that capture the depth, breadth, and originality fostered by our emphasis on interdisciplinarity in all aspects of the course design and teaching.

Example Project: Protein Modeling

The motivation for this project, mentored by Chemistry Professor Jens Meiler, came from a problem common to structural chemistry: the inherent difficulty of visualizing 3D objects. For this prototype, we aimed to model how simple proteins and molecules composed of a few tens of atoms interact and “fit” together. In drug design and discovery, this issue is of critical importance and can require significant amounts of computation (Allison et al. 2014). These interactions are often dominated by short-range van der Waals forces, although determining the correct configuration for the proteins to bind is challenging. This project illustrated that difficulty by letting people explore binding proteins together. Two proteins were given in an immersive environment that were graspable, and users attempted to fit them together. As they fit together, a score showing how well they fit was displayed. This score was computed based on an energy function incorporating Van der Waals attractive and repulsive potentials. The goal was to get the minimum score possible. The proteins and the energy equation were provided by the project mentor, although the students implemented a Van der Waals simulator within Unity for this project. Figures 1 and 2 show examples from the immersive virtual environment. The critical features of this project worth noting are that the molecules are three-dimensional structures that are asymmetric. Viewing them with proper depth perception is necessary to get an idea of their true shape. It would be difficult to recreate this simulation with the same effectiveness using desktop displays and interactions.

While issues of efficiency and effectiveness in chemical pedagogy drove our mentor’s interest, the student creators and demo day users were drawn to this project for its elements of science communication and gamification. By providing a running “high score” and providing a timed element, users were motivated to interact with the objects and experience far longer than with a 2D or static 3D visualization. One student member of this group did possess subject matter familiarity which helped incorporate the energy function into the experience.

Figure 1. Two proteins shown within the simulation. The larger protein on the left is the target protein to which the smaller protein (right) should be properly fit. A menu containing the score is shown past the proteins. Proteins may be grabbed, moved, and rotated using the virtual reality controllers. Embedded video: Figure 1. Two proteins shown within the simulation. The larger protein on the left is the target protein to which the smaller protein (right) should be properly fit. A menu containing the score is shown past the proteins. Proteins may be grabbed, moved, and rotated using the virtual reality controllers.

Example Project: Vectors of Textual Movement in Medieval Cypress

Professor of French Lynn Ramey served as the mentor for this project. Unlike most other mentors, Prof. Ramey had a long history of using Unity3D and game technologies in both her research and teaching. Her goal in working with us was to recreate an existing prototype in virtual reality, and determine the added values of visual immersion and hand tracked interactivity. This project created a game that simulates how stories might change during transmission and retelling (Amer et al. 2018; Ramey et al. 2019). The crusader Kingdom of Cyprus served as a waypoint between East and West during the years 1192 to 1489. This game focuses on the early period and looks at how elements of stories from The Thousand and One Nights might have morphed and changed to please sensibilities and tastes of different audiences. In the game, the user tells stories to agents within the game, ideally gaining storytelling experience and learning the individual preferences of the agents. After gaining enough experience, the user can gain entry to the King’s palace and tell a story to the King, with the goal of impressing the King. During the game play, the user must journey through the Kingdom of Cyrus to find agents to tell stories to.

This project was very successful at showcasing the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach. Perhaps the project closest to a traditional video game, faculty and students both were constantly reminded of the interplay between technical and creative decisions. However, this was not simply an “adaption” of a finished cultural work into a new medium, but rather an active exploration of an open humanities research project asking how, why, when, and for whom are stories told. No student member of this group majored in the mentor’s discipline.

This project is ongoing, and more information can be found here: https://medievalstorytelling.org.

A video walkthrough of the game can be seen below.

Figure 2. Video walk-through of gameplay. Embedded video: Fig 2. Video walk-through of medieval storytelling project gameplay. Video shows gameplay in main screen, with small inset filming user in VR headset. Gameplay shows the goal and user interface by which players tell stories and explore medieval village. Scenes include a market, a castle, and a village environment.

Example Project: Interactive Geometry for K–8 Mathematical Visualization

In this project, Corey Brady, Professor of Education, challenged our students to take full advantage of the physical presence offered by virtual environments, and build an interactive space where children can directly experience “mathematical dimensionality.” Inspired by recent research (Kobiela et al. 2019; Brady et al. 2019) examining physical geometrical creation in two dimensions (think paint, brushes and squeegees), the students created a brightly lit and colored virtual room, where the user is initially presented with a single point in space. Via user input, the point can be stretched into a line, the line into a plane, and the plane into a solid (rectangles, cylinders, and prisms). While doing so, bar graph visualizations of length, width, height, surface area, and volume are updated in real-time while the user increases or decreases the object along its various axes.

Virtual Reality as an education tool has proven very popular, both amongst our students and in industry. No student member of this group specialized in education, but all members had of course first hand experience learning these concepts themselves as children. The opportunity to reimagine a nearly universal learning process was a significant draw for this project. After this course offering, Brady and Molvig have begun a collaboration to expand its utility.

A video demonstration of the project can be seen below.

Figure 3. User manipulates the x, y, and z axes of a rectangle. Real-time calculations of surface area and volume are shown in the background. Embedded video: Figure 3. Video demonstration of geometry visualization project gameplay. User manipulates the x, y, and z axes of a various shapes, including regular polygons and conic sections. Real-time calculations of surface area and volume are shown in the background.

Example Project: Re-digitizing Stereograms

For this project, Molvig led a team to bring nineteenth-century stereographic images into 21st century technology. Invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1838 and later improved by David Brewster, stereograms are nearly identical paired photographs that when viewed through a binocular display, a single “3D image” [1] was perceived by the viewer, often with an effect of striking realism. For this reason, stereoscopy is often referred to as “Victorian VR.” Hundreds of thousands of scanned digitized stereo-pair photos exist in archives and online collections, however it is currently extremely difficult to view these as intended in stereoscopic 3D. Molvig’s goal was to create a generalizable stereogram viewer: capable of bringing stereopair images from remote archives for viewing within a modern VR headset.

Student interest quickly coalesced around two sets of remarkable stereoscopic anatomical atlases, the Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Anatomy (1905) and Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy from the Stanford Medical Library. Driven by student interest, the 2019 project branched into a VR alternative to wetlab or flat 2D medical anatomy imagery. This project remains ongoing, as is Molvig’s original generalized stereo viewer, which now includes a machine learning based algorithm to automated the import and segmentation of any stereopair photograph.

Two demonstrations of the stereoview player are below, the first for medical anatomy images, the second are stereophotos taken during the American Civil War. All images appear in stereoscopic depth when viewed in the headset.

Figure 4. Demonstration of anatomy stereoscopic viewer. Images from the Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy, Stanford Medical Library. Embedded video: Figure 4. Video demonstration of medical anatomy stereoscopic viewer project gameplay. User selects and relocates various stereoscopic images of cranial anatomy. Images from the Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy, Stanford Medical Library.
Figure 5. Demonstration of Civil War stereoviews. Images from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library Digital Collection. Embedded video: Figure 5. Video demonstration of Civil War stereoview project gameplay. User selects and and relocated various stereoscopic images taken during the American Civil War. Images depict scenes from battlefields, army encampments, and war material preparations. Images from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Challenges

This course has numerous challenges, both inside and outside of the classroom, and we have by no means solved them all.

Institutional

Securing support for co-teaching is not always easy. We began offering this course under a Provost level initiative to encourage ambitious teaching collaborations across disciplines. This initiative made it straightforward to count co-teaching efforts with our Deans, and provided some financial support for the needed hardware purchases. However, that initiative was for three course offerings, which we have now completed. Moving forward, we will need to negotiate our course with our Deans.

We rely heavily on invested Faculty Mentors to provide the best subject matter expertise. So far we have had no trouble finding volunteers, and the growing community of VR engaged faculty has been one of the greatest personal benefits, but as VR becomes less novel, we may experience a falloff in interest.

Interdisciplinarity

This is both the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of this course. Securing student buy-in on the value of interdisciplinary teamwork is our most consistent struggle. In particular, these issues arise around the uneven distribution of C# experience, and perceived notions of what type of work is “real” or “hard.” To mitigate these issues, we devote significant time during the first month of the course exposing everyone to all aspects of VR project development (technical and non-technical), and require the adoption of “roles” within each project to make responsibilities clear and workload distributed.

Cost

Virtual reality is a rapidly evolving field, with frequent hardware updates and changing requirements. We will need to secure new funding to significantly expand or update our current equipment.

Conclusions and Lessons Learned

Virtual reality technology is more accessible than ever, but it is not as accessible as one might wish in a pedagogical setting. It is difficult to create even moderately rich and sophisticated environments, without the development expertise gleaned through exposure to the computer science curriculum. A problem thus arises on two fronts. First, exposure to the computer science curriculum at the depth currently required to develop compelling virtual reality applications should ideally not be required of everyone. Unfortunately, the state of the art of our tools currently makes this necessary. Second, those who study computer science and virtual reality focus on building the tools and technology of virtual reality, the theories and algorithms integral to virtual reality, and the integration of these into effective virtual reality systems. Our class represents a compromise solution to the accessibility problem by changing the focus away from development of tools and technology toward collaboration and teamwork in service of building an application.

Our class is an introduction to virtual reality in the sense that students see the capability of modern commodity-level virtual reality equipment, software, and these limitations. They leave the class understanding what types of virtual worlds are easy to create, and what types of worlds are difficult to create. From the perspective of digital humanities, our course is a leveraged introduction to technology at the forefront of application to the humanities. Students are exposed to a humanities-centered approach to this technology through interaction with their project mentors.

In terms of the material that we, the instructors, focus most on in class, our class is about teamwork and problem-solving with people one has not chosen to work with. We present this latter skill as one essential to a college education, whether it comes from practical reasons, e.g., that is what students will be faced with in the workforce (Lingard & Barkataki 2013), or from theoretical perspectives on best ways to learn (Vygotsky 1978). The interdisciplinarity that is a core feature of the course is presented as a fact of the modern workforce. Successful interdisciplinary teams are able to communicate and coordinate effectively with one another, and we emphasize frameworks that allow these things to happen.

Within the broader Vanderbilt curriculum, the course satisfies different curricular requirements. For CS students, the course satisfies a requirement that they participate in a group design experience as part of their major requirements. The interdisciplinary nature of the group is not a major requirement, but is viewed as an advantage, since it is likely that most CS majors will be part of interdisciplinary teams during their future careers. For non-CS students, the course currently satisfies the requirements of the Communication of Science and Technology major and minor.[2]

Over the three iterations of this course, we have learned that team teaching an interdisciplinary project course is not trivial. In particular, it requires more effort than each professor lecturing on their own specialty, and expecting effective learning to emerge from the two different streams. That expectation was closer to what we did in the first offering of this course, where we quickly perceived that this practice was not the most engaging format for the students, nor was it the most effective pedagogy for what we wanted to accomplish. The essence of the course is on creating teams to use mostly accessible technology to create engaging virtual worlds. We have reorganized our lecture and pedagogical practices to support this core. In doing this, each of us brings to the class our own knowledge and expertise on how best to accomplish that goal, and thus the students experience something closer to two views on the same problem. While we are iteratively refining this approach, we believe it is more successful.

Agile methods (Pope-Ruark 2017) have become an essential part of our course. They allow us to better judge the progress of the projects and determine where bottlenecks are occurring more quickly. They incentivize students to work consistently on the project over the course of the semester rather than trying to build everything at the end in a mad rush of effort. By requiring students to mark their progress on burn down charts, the students have a better visualization of the task remaining to be accomplished. Project boards associated with Agile can provide insight into the relative distribution of work that is occurring in the group, ideally allowing us to influence group dynamics before serious tensions arise.

This latter effort is a work in progress, however. A limitation of the course as it currently exists is that we need to do a better job evaluating teams (Hughes & Jones 2011). Currently our student evaluations rely too heavily on the final outcome of the project and not enough on the effectiveness of the teamwork within the team. Evaluating teamwork, however, has seemed cumbersome, and the best way to give meaningful feedback to improve teamwork practices is something we are still exploring. If we improved this practice, we could give students more refined feedback throughout the semester on their individual and group performance, and use that as a springboard to teach better team practices. Better team practices would likely result in increased quality of the final projects.

Notes

[1] These images are not truly three dimensional, as they cannot be rotated or peered behind. Rather two images are created precisely to fool the brain into adding a perception of depth into a single combined image.
[2] https://as.vanderbilt.edu/cst/. There is currently no digital humanities major or minor at Vanderbilt.

References

Allison, Brittany, Steven Combs, Sam DeLuca, Gordon Lemmon, Laura Mizoue, and Jens Meiler. 2014. “Computational Design of Protein–Small Molecule Interfaces.” Journal of Structural Biology 185, no. 2: 193–202.

Amer, Sahar, and Lynn Ramey. 2018. “Teaching the Global Middle Ages with Technology.” Parergon: Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies 35: 179–91.

Brady, Corey, and Richard Lehrer. 2020. “Sweeping Area Across Physical and Virtual Environments.“ Digital Experiences in Mathematics Education: 1–33. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40751-020-00076-2.

Cline, Ernest. 2012. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books.

Hughes, Richard L., and Steven K. Jones. 2011. “Developing and assessing college student teamwork skills.“ New Directions for Institutional Research 149: 53–64.

Kobiela, Marta, and Richard Lehrer. 2019. “Supporting Dynamic Conceptions of Area and its Measure.” Mathematical Thinking and Learning: 1–29.

Kozlowski, Steve W.J., and Daniel R. Ilgen. 2006. “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 7, no.3: 77–124.

Kuh, George D., Jillian Kinzie, Jennifer A. Buckley, Brian K. Bridges, and John C. Hayek. 2006. What Matters to Student Success: A Review of the Literature. Vol. 8. Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Education Cooperative.

LaValle, Steve 2017. Virtual Reality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lingard, Robert, and Shan Barkataki 2011. “Teaching Teamwork in Engineering and Computer Science.” 2011 Frontiers in Education Conference. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Pope-Ruark, Rebecca. 2017. Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ramey, Lynn, David Neville, Sahar Amer, et al. 2019. “Revisioning the Global Middle Ages: Immersive Environments for Teaching Medieval Languages and Culture.” Digital Philology 8: 86–104.

Takala, Tuukka M., Lauri Malmi, Roberto Pugliese, and Tapio Takala. 2016. “Empowering students to create better virtual reality applications: A longitudinal study of a VR capstone course.” Informatics in Education 15, no. 2: 287–317.

Zimmerman, Guy W., and Dena E. Eber. 2001. “When worlds collide!: an interdisciplinary course in virtual-reality art.” ACM SIGCSE Bulletin 33, no. 1.

Appendix 1: Complete Project List

Project Title (Mentor, Field, Year(s))

  1. Aristotelian Physics Simulation (Molvig, History of Science, 2017, 2018).
  2. Virtual Excavation (Wernke, Archeology, 2017, 2018).
  3. Aech’s Basement: scene from Ready Player One (Clayton, English, 2017).
  4. Singing with Avatar (Reiser, Psychology, 2017).
  5. Visualizing Breathing: interactive biometric data (Birdee, Medicine, 2017).
  6. Memory Palace (Kunda, Computer Science, 2017).
  7. Centennial Park (Lee, Art History, 2017).
  8. Stereograms (Peters, Computer Science, 2017).
  9. Medieval Storytelling (Ramey, French, 2017, 2018, 2019).
  10. VR locomotion (Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2017).
  11. 3D chemistry (Meiler, Chemistry, 2018).
  12. Data Visualization (Berger, Computer Science, 2018).
  13. Adversarial Maze (Narasimham and Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2018).
  14. Operating Room Tool Assembly (Schoenecker, Medicine, 2018).
  15. Autism Spectrum Disorder: table building simulation (Sarkar, Mechanical Engineering, 2019).
  16. Brain Flow Visualization (Oguz, Computer Science, 2019).
  17. Interactive Geometry (Brady, Learning Sciences, 2019).
  18. Jekyll and Hyde (Clayton, English, 2019).
  19. fMRI Brain Activation (Chang, Computer Science, 2019).
  20. Virtual Museum (Robinson, Art History, 2019).
  21. Peripersonal Space (Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2019).
  22. Solar System Simulation (Weintraub, Astronomy, 2019).
  23. Accessing Stereograms (Molvig, History, 2019).

About the Authors

Ole Molvig is an assistant professor in the Department of History and the Program in Communication of Science and Technology. He explores the interactions among science, technology, and culture from 16th-century cosmology to modern emergent technologies like virtual reality or artificial intelligence. He received his Ph.D. in the History of Science from Princeton University.

Bobby Bodenheimer is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Vanderbilt University. He also holds an appointment in the Department of Psychology and Human Development. His research examines virtual and augmented reality, specifically how people act, perceive, locomote, and navigate in virtual and augmented environments. He is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award and received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology.

A WeChat account dashboard featuring counts of articles and friends.
1

A Learning Success Story with WeChat

Chen Gao

Using WeChat, a social networking mobile app popular in China, an undergraduate Advanced Chinese I class built a virtual learning community to strengthen students’ writing skills in Chinese, while providing them with broader international audience, enhancing their vocabulary and grammar, and offering more opportunities for collaboration, interaction, and feedback.

Read more… A Learning Success Story with WeChat

Image depicts the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. People walk in various directions as birds fly overhead. Pigeons, strollers, and passersby surround Boudhanath Stupa in the morning.
3

“So You Want to Build a Digital Archive?” A Dialogue on Critical Digital Humanities Graduate Pedagogy

Abstract

This article presents conversations between an Assistant Professor and graduate student as they negotiate various methods and approaches to designing a digital archive. The authors describe their processes for deciding to develop a digital archive of street art in Kathmandu, Nepal through an anticolonial, feminist perspective that highlights community knowledge-making practices while also leveraging the affordances of digital representation. Written in the style of a dialogue, this article illustrates the various tensions and negotiations that interdisciplinary student-instructor teams may encounter when deciding how to design a digital archive through critical frameworks. These challenges include making decisions about how to represent cultural practices and values in online spaces, negotiating technological and cultural literacies to make an accessible, usable archive, and putting together a team of researchers who are invested in a specific digital archiving project. The purpose of the article is to extend a conversation about possible approaches and challenges that new faculty and students may encounter when engaging in digital archiving work.

Image depicts the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. People walk in various directions as birds fly overhead. Pigeons, strollers, and passersby surround Boudhanath Stupa in the morning.

Figure 1. Image of Kathmandu streets by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Bibhushana

I want to start with a particular incident to introduce and contextualize myself and my project, though this was not the only or the most significant thing to trigger my interests in my current work. It happened during my first semester in graduate school, in my second month of living in the U.S. I was waiting for the campus shuttle to get back to my apartment. A guy came up to me and started talking. After some casual exchanges, he asked,

“Where are you from?”

“Nepal,” I said.

“Where is that?” He asked.

I felt like he had to know Nepal without any further references. Then, I remembered that there are countries I don’t know about, too. Because “no one” talks about them. [The question here is also who is/are “no one?”].

And so I said, “It’s in South Asia.”

“You mean the Philippines?” He asked.

“Isn’t that a different country? Maybe you should try to Google Nepal,” I told him.

At this point, I just wanted to be done with this conversation.

“Yeah, you are right. I will,” he said.

I smiled and turned my head to the street, continuing to wait for the bus. Then, something even more dreadful occurred to me. I considered what Google might say about Nepal, aside from providing some tourist guide kind of thing. Earthquakes? Floods? The Chhaupadi system? Discrimination against women? Some local rituals? And so on. Well, all of these statements are true. But is that all that’s true about Nepal? What about the other multiple narratives that are easily overshadowed by the dominant and much disseminated, algorithmic, exotic, and damaging narrative of Nepal? Don’t I, you, she, he, they, it, we, that, this also exist? I feared that this man from the bus stop might Google Nepal and start feeling sorry for me in a way I would never feel for myself.

I hastily turned towards the stranger and said, “Actually, I don’t recommend you Googling. Google doesn’t tell you much about the places you don’t know and want to know more about.” I knew he wouldn’t Google anyway. Perhaps he did not even remember my country’s name anymore. But from then on, I knew that I would never again say, “why don’t you Google Nepal?” to a stranger.

I always knew there is something “wrong” with Google. Consider, for example, Safiya Umoja Noble’s (2018) Algorithms of Oppression, where she discusses the multiple ways in which digital algorithms oppress non-Western communities and communities of color. The representation of Nepali culture in digital spaces started becoming a major concern for me after I moved to the U.S. I felt like postcolonialism and its debates (which I had studied in Nepal) started making much more sense after my move to a “new” or “foreign” country. In the U.S., people frequently conclude things about me based on my skin color and the way I speak English in an “un-English” way. Why would—or what makes—someone conclude things about me in an absolute manner before even knowing me? These questions and experiences, among many others, triggered my curiosity in and decision to make interventions in digital archiving. Specifically, I decided to create a digital archive of street photography in Kathmandu, Nepal (non-West) from the physical location of the U.S. (West). The purpose of this archive is to illustrate the many artistic expressions and ways of being that may not traditionally or inherently be used to describe my culture and my country in current digital spaces.

Through some preliminary research, I found some digital representations of Nepal that may be considered archives, even if they are not formally identified as such (see De Kosnik’s (2016) discussion of “metaphorical instances of ‘archives’ in the digital age”). What I found is that most of these digital representations of Nepal are created and maintained by non-Nepalis, most of whom are situated in Western contexts. For example, the Digital Archeology Foundation was founded after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal to collect data “for research, heritage preservation, heritage appreciation, reconstruction planning, educational programs and 3D replication to aid in rebuilding and restoration work.” Data collected through this site is “sent to the IDA in Oxford for referencing and preservation.” The site is privately funded by David Ways through his travel-guide project The Longest Way Home. Another example, Archive-IT, hosts an archive of the “2015 Nepal Earthquake.” The purpose of the archive is to host “a collection of web resources related to the April 25th, 2015 earthquake and its after effects in Nepal. Contributors to this collection include Columbia University Library, Yale University Library, and the Bodleian Library,” none of whom are identified as being from Nepal.

Academic representations of Nepal in online spaces also portray essentializing notions of Nepali culture. For example, many U.S. Universities established websites of their South Asian Studies departments (see for example: https://www.southasia.upenn.edu/, http://southasia.rutgers.edu/, https://www.brown.edu/academics/south-asia/, and http://piirs.princeton.edu/sas). While much of the information on these sites is useful, all of these sites include photographs depicting Nepali culture (or South Asian cultures) as subjects of inquiry, with images of traditional Nepali religious rituals and ceremonies countering images of classroom discussion and intellectual engagement used to depict U.S. students in U.S. classrooms. In short, contemporary digital representations of Nepal remain largely what Said (1978) describes as a “great collective appropriation of one country by another,” leaving much room to expand and (re)build Nepali online identities (84).

Laura

During my graduate program at a large, public, Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in the Midwest, I had the opportunity to participate in and lead a few Digital Humanities projects. As a South American, White-presenting Latina immigrant in the U.S., it was my dream to apply my training in Digital Humanities in a context that would directly benefit (and stem from) minoritized communities. I dreamt of designing digital platforms that were not only designed “for” minoritized communities, but that were also co-designed with communities for our communities’ specific expertise, desires, and ideas. After graduating and coming to work at a university in the Southwest with an 80% Latinx student population, and in a graduate program that has the privilege of hosting a large international student population, predominantly from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Mexico, I was immediately motivated to start working with our brilliant students to not only critique the current normalized Western-dominant state of technology innovation in and beyond Digital Humanities, but to also build, along with students and communities, tools, technologies, and platforms that were designed by and for non-Western, non–English-dominant audiences.

It was in this context that I met Bibhushana, a brilliant PhD student who has interest and experience in Digital Humanities and who also entered our PhD program with extensive experience in critical theory (one of my favorite first memories of Bibhushana is from one of the first days I had her in class, when she told a story and casually mentioned that a year back she was “having lunch with Spivak and discussing critical theory”). In short, Bibhushana, like many of our international students pursuing graduate education in the U.S., has extensive training, experiences, and ideas that can and should inform U.S.-based institutions and disciplines and their orientations to Digital Humanities research. Yet, even in my short time at an institution that hosts a much more diverse student population than where I had my own graduate training, I note drastic discrepancies in how this innovative digital building work is supported when it stems from “non-traditional” students—students who are positioned by the institution to need “traditional” training in canonical disciplinary texts and practices (Sanchez-Martin et al. 2019). The flexibility, trust, and material support for innovative DH work is something that needs to be fostered and grown in the context in which Bibhushana and I met, and, we imagine, in other contexts hosting historically minoritized student populations.

As researchers with interdisciplinary research interests and from significantly different backgrounds, we are working to establish ethical protocols for building digital archives that are culturally sustaining rather than representative, and that intentionally avoid cultural essentialism. The stories and perspectives that we share in this dialogue illustrate some of the ways in which we are aiming to practice this type of ethical protocol both in the development of an archive and by reflecting on our participatory, community-driven methods. Drawing on Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E Kirsch’s (2012) notion of strategic contemplation, we write this piece in the style of a dialogue to search for, reflect upon, and make visible the ways in which feminist rhetorical practices and relationships influence this critical digital archiving project and Critical Digital Humanities projects more broadly. According to Royster and Kirsch (2012), strategic contemplation “allows scholars to observe and notice, to listen to and hear voices often neglected or silenced, and to notice more overtly their own responses to what they are seeing, reading, reflecting on, and encountering during their research processes” (86). In this way, using strategic contemplation through our dialogue structure helps us both reflect on and illustrate the importance of embracing a critical awareness during decision-making processes in DH work.

Bibhushana

October 5, 2017

Dear Dr. Gonzales,

I am Bibhushana, RWS doctoral candidate, 1st semester …. I just wanted to ask you ‘are you into DH?’ I was just searching for someone in UTEP to talk about it. It’s my newly found curiosity about which I don’t know much. Right after [attending a] DH seminar in Nepal, I was curious (and excited) to know about UTEP’s approach to ‘rhetoric and technology’. Only couple of days back, I got to know that you will be teaching the class. I am very much looking forward to be in your class next semester.

Sincerely,

Bibhu

From the time I got into my PhD program in the U.S., I started searching for people who are working or willing to work in DH. For me, it was difficult to even imagine having to spend my doctoral years without being engaged in conversation with DH scholarship, theories, and praxis. I am not implying that every researcher should do DH work, but I do think that every university space should have some established DH infrastructures. My email to Dr. Gonzales was driven by my desire to work in DH after learning about this field during my last two months in Nepal. During this time, I participated in a #DHNepal2017 Summer Institute led by Professor Scott Kleinman, director of the Center for Digital Humanities at California State University at Northridge. During this workshop, I became interested in creating DH projects through postcolonial and feminist lenses that connect to my own disciplinary background in critical theory. However, I also realized that in order to create such projects, I would need to be connected to other DH scholars and have access to DH infrastructures and resources after the conclusion of the workshop. Professor Arun Gupto, director of the Institute of Advanced Communication Education and Research (IACER) in Nepal, where the #DHNepal2017 workshop was hosted, insisted that despite our lack of formal DH infrastructures in Nepal, we should keep trying to establish DH projects and programs in collaboration with other scholars. Having more opportunities to engage with DH projects would allow students and scholars to establish a broader network and audience for the critical humanities work that is already taking place in Nepal and in South Asia more broadly. Thus, as I began my doctoral program in the U.S. with many questions, I continued seeking opportunities to bring together work in DH, literary theory, and critical cultural studies.

Laura

When I first received the email from Bibhu asking if I was “into” DH, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Sure, I had worked on DH projects myself, but did I really have the training and expertise to guide a graduate student into this field? What would this guidance require, and how should I prepare? And, perhaps more importantly, what resources could I really provide Bibhu, particularly given the fact that I was only in my second year as an Assistant Professor in my current institution, and that I hadn’t heard the term DH be used on our campus? I was excited that Bibhu had interests in DH and that she would be in my “Rhetoric and Technology” course the following semester. In that course, I try to incorporate opportunities for students to define for themselves what the terms “Rhetoric and Technology” might mean in their careers, finding ways to combine our course readings with their own projects and interests. Although the “Rhetoric and Technology” course that is incorporated into our PhD program in Rhetoric and Writing Studies does not always cover Digital Humanities scholarship, my hope was that Bibhu would continue to develop her interests in DH and find ways to make connections in our course content. So, on the first day of class, I asked Bibhu (along with all my students) to describe their interests, and I encouraged them to continue pursuing this work throughout our class. Bibhu mentioned she was interested in DH and was thinking about building a “non-representational Nepali digital archive.” I was immediately intrigued, and I suggested that she might look into building this type of archive as her final course project. Our first class took place on January 17, 2018.

Bibhushana

January 19, 2018

Hi Dr. Gonzales,

It’s Bibhushana.

I wanted to tell you that I liked … your idea [from class] about creating a database from South Asia. I talked to my professor Arun Gupto about it and he too liked the idea. We discussed about the ways I can use it in my other research projects as well. But the problem is I have absolutely no idea about creating a database. I am excited about this project because it is a kind of initiation towards working with technology the way I have never done before. Even if it’s very intimidating to start from the scratch, I am looking forward to it. So, I will be needing your guidance from the very first step. It would be wonderful if you could tell me how and where do I start. What should be my first step? I know it’s going to be very challenging and I might tire you with my questions too. 🙂

Regards,

Bibhu

Laura

Shortly after I received the message from Bibhu expressing her continued interest in building her digital archive (i.e., database), I decided to try to connect her with our university library resources to provide some background in the “technicalities” training that Bibhu mentions above. I know that Bibhu has extensive training in postcolonial and decolonial scholarship, and that she is incredibly qualified to build the archive she wants to build. However, I also recognize and understand her hesitance toward identifying as a “tech-savvy” DH scholar who can build an archive from scratch. Further, I recognize Gabriela Raquel Ríos’s important clarification that terms like “colonial” and “decolonial,” while now deployed frequently “in recent scholarship on the rise of new media and digital humanities,” should not be used metaphorically without considering “the relationship between colonization and indigeneity (broadly) that the trope evokes” (Cobos et al. 2018, 146). As Ríos explains in Cobos et al., (2018), “for scholars of indigenous rhetoric, the trope of colonization matters differently … than it might for other scholars, and it probably matters differently for students and faculty who are marked as indigenous or who identify as indigenous as well” (146). Thus, to say that we want to build Bibhu’s archive through anticolonial frameworks means that we have to have the resources, awareness, skills, and community commitments and connections to do so in ethical, participatory ways.

Although our immediate university resources at the time were not able to provide much training in programming and digital archive design, what Bibhu and I learned through our early conversations is that the core of developing this archive lies in the willingness to try something new, and in the understanding that despite what may be perceived as a “lack” of “tech-savvy” knowledge, students like Bibhushana have the critical and cultural knowledge and experiences to help digital archivists rethink their approaches to cultural (re)presentation in online spaces. What Bibhushana had, even in our early conversations, was a willingness to engage and experiment with various interfaces and to fail and try again when certain digital elements did not work as she as initially hoped. She also has a clear understanding and commitment to avoiding fetishization and false claims of representation in her work. Thus, as we began exploring platforms and resources, Bibhushana and I were able to also continue expanding our theoretical, practical, and disciplinary frameworks for approaching this archiving project.

Bibhushana and Laura Discuss Critical DH Methodologies

As we began the process of conceptualizing and collaborating on Bibhushana’s archive, we found it important to also read and write together about the specific epistemological groundings that this project would entail. For example, to work toward decolonizing knowledge production and representation in Digital Humanities research and pedagogy, we embraced a shift from Digital Humanities (DH) to Critical Digital Humanities (CDH). Arguing that the Digital Humanities, as evidenced in its “digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects,” lacks cultural critique, Alan Liu (2012) writes,

While digital humanists develop tools, data, and metadata critically (e.g., debating the “ordered hierarchy of content objects” principle; disputing whether computation is best used for truth finding or, as Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann put it, “deformance”; and so on), rarely do they extend their critique to the full register of society, economics, politics, or culture. (n.p.)

In building our archive, we want to remain mindful of the ongoing, continuous relationship between critiquing and building, embracing the value of strategic contemplation while also remaining grounded in the everyday tasks and skills that DH projects require. As Liu posits, to frame the beginning of our project, we wondered, “How [do] the digital humanities advance, channel, or resist today’s great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate, and global flows of information-cum-capital?” and how do we build an archive that tells many stories, from multiple perspectives, without claiming to represent a perceivably homogenous country, culture, and community?

To work toward these aims, we looked to examples of existing critical digital archives and decolonial DH projects, including: Slave Voyages (Emory Center for Digital Scholarship), which maps the “dispersal of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic world”; Torn Apart/Separados, “a deep and radically new look at the territory and infrastructure of ICE’s financial regime in the USA” that seeks to peel “back layers of culpability behind the humanitarian crisis of 2018”; Mapping Inequality, which offers “an extraordinary view of the contours of wealth and racial inequality in Depression-era American cities and insights into discriminatory policies and practices that so profoundly shaped cities that we feel their legacy to this day”; and SAADA: South Asian American Digital Archive, which “digitally documents, preserves, and shares stories of South Asian Americans.” In addition to these post projects, we are inspired by feminist digital archives such as Rise Up!, a digital archive of “feminist activism in Canada from the 1970s to the 1990s”; and Digital Feminist Archives, which offers “a snapshot of feminist history in the 1960s and 1970s.” Together, these projects, along with others listed in a Women’s Studies online database of the University of Michigan Library, provide us with useful models and inspiration for developing a digital archive of Nepal street photography that is both feminist and decolonial in its orientation to and claims about cultural (re)presentation.

Bibhushana

Through my decision to build a digital archive in the U.S., I thread my own experiences of gender discrimination in Nepal with racial and gender relations in the U.S. Engaging with “questions at the intersections of theory and praxis as we consider how tools can be theorized, hacked, and used in service of decolonization,” (Risam and Cardenas 2015), my goal is to problematize “imperialist archives that establish Western tradition by collecting and preserving artifacts from othered traditions” (Cushman 2013, 118). As Miriam Posner (2016) argues, CDH (and, we argue, decolonial digital archiving specifically) is “not only about shifting the focus of projects so that they feature marginalized communities more prominently; it is about ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it does not reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.” This is no easy task.

As alluring the idea of building a digital archive might sound, it is even more challenging. Digital archiving is collaborative work, and this kind of project needs a team, which I was still in search of at my new institution. In addition, I had another conceptual dilemma. As Kurtz (2006) explains in his discussion of the relationship between postcolonialism and archiving, archiving “is a literal re-centering of material for the construction and contestation of knowledge, whereas postcolonialism often works toward a figurative decentering of that same material” (25). With digital archiving, this contradiction between postcolonialism and archiving takes another dimension. As challenging it is, my aim in this project is not (only) to build a digital archive, but to document the journey itself, acknowledging my own positionality in this process. It is important not only to talk about what should be done to decolonize digital archives, but also to document and tell the stories of what happens when one undertakes this journey. My confusion and lack of tech-savviness is not only my personal story, but it is also a story that reveals a lot about resources within and beyond academia and many other socio-cultural-economic ecologies, particularly those situated in non-Western contexts.

Currently, I am building a prototype of the digital archive, which can be found at http://cassacda.com/. I named the project Rethinking South Asia via Critical Digital Archiving: Political, Ethical, Philosophical, and Aesthetic Journeys to emphasize the necessity of studying and building digital archives through critical lenses that help me relentlessly dig out and exhibit the complexities involved in the performance of archiving. If the goal is to decolonize and depatriarchalize digital archives and/in DH, then the purpose of my digital archive is to demonstrate such complexities and to show that there is no way one can represent any phenomena, country, or culture in an ethical way.

In order to work toward building this archive through anticolonial and feminist frameworks, I designed my site with an emphasis on collaboratively selecting and showcasing visuals and metadata. My goal is to avoid any insinuation of a singular, homogeneous representation of my home country and its various communities. Based on feedback from an initial IRB-approved online usability study that I conducted with participants in Nepal, I plan to insert my audiences’ experiences of and responses to the photographs in my archive as metadata. In this way, I seek to tell multiple narratives through various layers of the archive, remaining only one of many authors and designers on this project. Currently, I include both Nepali and English in the archive, and hope to extend to include other languages through further usability testing and collaboration.

Rather than categorizing collections in the archive through conventional tropes of religion, rituals, and landscapes, I continuously change photographs on the landing page of the archive, all of which depict Nepali community members partaking in everyday tasks like strolling down the streets, making tea in roadside stalls, and riding motorcycles. Figure 2 is a screenshot of the recent landing page of the archive, where four images showcase community members engaging in everyday activities in the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal.

Figure 2: The image depicts the landing page of our digital archive. Four pictures of the streets in Kathmandu are positioned in block format and labeled, Boudhanath Stupa," and "Streets in Thamel, Asan, & Indrachowk."

Figure 2. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Through a feminist perspective, I also seek to counter conventional notions of Nepali women in my archive, specifically by showcasing images of women in their everyday lives perceivably defying traditional narratives and representations. Figures 3, 4, and 5, for example, portray women of various ages riding in cars and motorcycles, changing a flat tire, shopping, making tea, and going to school.

Figure 3: Two side-by-side images, one depicting a woman in the back of a car holding a baby and waving; the other depicting two young girls with braids walking with backpacks on.

Figure 3. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Figure 4: Two side-by-side images, one depicting a woman riding a motorcycle down the street and another depicting a person changing the tire of a mini-bus.

Figure 4. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Figure 5: Two side-by-side images depict women at an early morning coffee stall at San market and walking through its residential square

Figure 5. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Images such as those portrayed in Figures 3, 4, and 5 are prevalent throughout my archive, and further illustrate the ways in which I seek to rebuild and reposition common portrayals of Nepal in online spaces. My goal is to shift my potential audiences’ and my own expectations and wishes to see Nepal portrayed in certain ways. One of the hardest dilemmas I face in building this archive is the challenge of both weaving and representing visual stories of Nepal through my images without narrowing or limiting representations in one way or another. To deal with that to a certain extent, the images on the landing page keep changing so that the archive does not stick to one (or my) way of de/re/presenting Nepal and Nepalis. As I continue uploading thousands of images, my so-called authorship will be challenged in a subtle and necessary way as I continue building the archive through feedback from various audiences.

Despite my attempts to unpack and decenter a singular perspective of culture, there is always a problem with the concept of representation, particularly in archiving. Archiving is always situated. There is always what Mignolo (2003) defines as a “locus of enunciation” (5). The locus of enunciation, according to Mignolo (2002), references “the geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial difference” in the push for representation, which is never neutral (61). My goal through this project thus is to demonstrate that locus of enunciation and problematize the assurance of representation through depictions that may be deemed unconventional or unusual or that counter established assumptions about a specific group of people.

Currently, the archive hosts several photography collections that illustrate the streets of Kathmandu like those presented in Figures 2, 3, 4, and 5. My overarching definition of critical digital archiving is on the landing page of the archive, stating from the beginning that the purpose of the site is not to represent, but rather to present possibilities to question the whole idea of representation via archiving of my own street photography. On the archive’s About page, I offer guiding questions and exigencies for the project, which include the goal of “building a depatriarchal-decolonial digital archive … in a non-representational manner.”

After conducting a landscape analysis of free and open-source CMS blogging platforms (like Squarespace, WordPress, Wix, Weebly, Drupal) and noting and comparing the affordances and constraints of these platforms, I decided to build the archive using Omeka. Omeka is a “web publishing platform and a content management system (CMS), developed by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University,” that was “developed specifically for scholarly content, with particular emphasis on digital collections and exhibits” (Bushong and King 2013). Because Omeka is a CMS designed for projects like my archive, I did not have to worry about my “lack” of coding literacy to start building an archive of Nepali street photography. At the same time, however, Omeka does not have abundant online tutorials available. So, it took a long time to figure out how to create items, collections, and exhibitions in this platform and to change themes and insert plugins. Further, working on this project in an institution that does not have formal infrastructures to support digital research emerging from the humanities made it more difficult and isolating to undergo the process of learning Omeka’s features and possibilities. Besides extensive metadata space (with the Dublin Core element set of fifteen metadata sets), Omeka has plugins like Neatline that allow users to weave narratives with maps and timelines and interact with different elements within the archive. My goal after setting up this initial prototype is to continue working with plugins like Neatline as I also continue having conversations and collaborating with various stakeholders who can contribute to the dynamic nature of this project.

Laura

In addition to setting up the initial infrastructure, we are also in the process of conducting participatory design and usability studies with several stakeholders who may be interested and invested in the project. As I agreed to continue working with Bibhu on this project as her dissertation advisor, I also made the decision to leave my current institution in the upcoming year. Together, Bibhu and I realized that we needed to find more resources if we were really going to have the time and space to devote to this project cross-institutionally during Bibhu’s time as a PhD student. Thus, as Bibhu was setting up the infrastructure of her project, I started seeking grant opportunities that could help us expand on her work. It was at this point that I found a grant opportunity that allowed us to work with a team of designer and user-experience researchers to develop future plans for this project. Most importantly, this grant will allow Bibhu and I to travel to Nepal in the summer of 2019 to conduct design, usability, and user experience testing with community members in Kathmandu, Nepal, allowing us to incorporate critical perspectives from Nepali communities as we continue building this project from the U.S. Through a participatory research framework (Rose and Cardinal 2018; Simmons and Grabill 2007), user testing in Nepal will allow us to get on-the-ground perspectives from Nepali communities about the things that they value in online representations of their home country. Furthermore, conducting in-person usability tests and participatory interviews with participants in Nepal will allow us to establish a team and a network for updating and maintaining future iterations of the archive.

Bibhushana

During our trip to Nepal, we will share prototypes of the archive with Nepali students, professors, and community members, as well as with other (non-Nepali) individuals who want to know more about Nepal. We are hoping that these user tests will help us make careful and responsible decisions regarding photographs and the nature of metadata. In a previous stage of the project, I conducted an online usability study that asked participants in Nepal to visit my archive and answer questions regarding the structure and usability of the site in its current stage. Questions included in this study helped me make decisions about the header text and landing page of the archive, where participants commented that the archive allowed audiences to see “the unnoticeable everyday life of local people in Nepal.” The full list of survey questions can be accessed here.

Although the online survey allowed me to gain some insights into Nepali community members’ perceptions of my archive, I was only able to get 16 responses to my study, despite my many efforts to disseminate my online survey through various platforms. This limited response echoes discrepancies in digital access that are common in communities in my home country who may not feel comfortable sharing their perspectives through online mediums that have historically fetishized and misrepresented non-Western contexts. For this reason, visiting Nepal in person to share the archive and conduct further testing will allow us to gain more responses that can continue shaping the direction of this project.

Through further in-person usability tests, we also hope to see if and how the digital archive is producing and/or reproducing traditional (i.e., colonial) representations of Nepali practices, and if/how the archive encourages further imagining of the multiple narratives embodied in places and people across cultures. Although we may not have all the necessary material and physical resources to consult with at our current institution, by increasing the visibility of this project in its prototype stages, and by working with participants in Nepal to continue designing and testing the archive, we hope to build and connect with networks of DH scholars beyond our local context who have experience designing archives and who may be interested in contributing to the development of this project. As this will be my first trip back to Nepal since coming to study in the U.S., I hope that this will be an opportunity to share my work with scholars and researchers in Nepal who are working in the area of Nepali Studies and South Asian Studies, continuing to develop frameworks for participatory, cross-institutional DH research.

Conclusion

Fostering the space to innovate digital archiving practices is a collaborative effort that requires individual researchers and institutions to move beyond binaries and disciplinary boundaries, engaging in a paradigmatic shift necessary to decolonize knowledge and its production and dissemination. As Jamie “Skye” Bianco (2012) explains, “This is not a moment to abdicate the political, social, cultural, and philosophical, but rather one for an open discussion of their inclusion in the ethology and methods of the digital humanities” (102). As Bianco (2012) continues, “we [in the Digital Humanities] are not required to choose between the philosophical, critical, cultural, and computational; we are required to integrate and to experiment,” particularly through ethical frameworks that value and centralize community knowledge (101).

Our project engages in rigorous conversations and questions that have been central to the work of the humanities, particularly in relation to cultural criticism, capitalism, and digital making. Critical digital archiving, and the process of engaging in CDH work more broadly, does not provide any static formula to decolonize or depatriarchalize digital archives, and neither do we. Instead, developing ethical protocols for creating DH projects, at least as we document in this article, requires researchers and student-teacher teams to explore multiple methods that purposely work against fetishization and essentialism through collaboration and participatory research.

By presenting a dialogue and preliminary plan for creating an anticolonial digital archive of Nepali street photography, we hope to engage in further conversations about the non-hierarchical interdisciplinary methodologies, inquiries, concerns, theories, and praxes that can be incorporated into CDH research. Through our collective conversations, we hope to further illustrate how issues of access, innovation, and cultural training intersect in the design and dissemination of contemporary digital archives and archiving practices, and how collaboration and participatory research, which have always been at the heart of DH, can also be critical components of building CDH infrastructures in perceivably “non-traditional” spaces. We hope that other teacher-researcher DH teams can thus learn from and build on our stories.

Bibliography

Bianco, Jamie “Skye.” 2012. “This Digital Humanities Which is Not One.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, 96–112. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bushong, Anthony, and King, David. 2013. “Intro to Digital Humanities.” UCLA Center for Digital Humanities.
http://dh101.humanities.ucla.edu/?page_id=104.

Copozzi, Mae. 2014. “A Postcolonial ‘Distant Reading’ of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Anglophone Literature.” Postcolonial Digital Humanities. http://dhpoco.org/blog/2014/04/08/a-postcolonial-distant-reading-of-eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century-anglophone-literature/.

Critical Digital Archiving. http://cassacda.com/.

Cobos, Cassie, Gabriela Raquel Ríos, Donnie Johnson Sackey, Jennifer Sano- Franchini & Angela M. Haas. 2018. “Interfacing Cultural Rhetorics: A History and a Call.” Rhetoric Review 37, no. 2: 139–154.

Cushman, Ellen. 2013. “Wampum, Sequoyan, and Story: Decolonizing the Digital Archive.” College English 76, no. 2: 115–135.

DeVoss, Dànielle, Angela Haas, and Jacqueline Rhodes. 2019. “Introduction by the guest editors.” TechnoFeminism: (Re)Generations and Intersectional Futures.
http://cconlinejournal.org/techfem_si/00_Editors/.

Kurtz, Matthew. 2006. “A Postcolonial Archive? On the Paradox of Practice in a Northwest Alaska Project”. Archivaria, 61.
https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12535.

Decolonising Archives. 2016. L’Internationale. 2016.
https://www.internationaleonline.org/media/files/decolonisingarchives_pdf_def_02.pdf [pdf].

De Kosnik, A. 2016. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Digital Feminist Archives. Bernard Center for Research on Women. http://bcrw.barnard.edu/digital-feminist-archives/.

Liu, Alan. 2012. “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”. In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/20.

Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America
https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=4/36.71/-96.93&opacity=0.8.  

Mignolo, Walter D. 2003. The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

—. 2002. “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, 101 (1): 57–96.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.

Posner, Miriam. 2016 “What’s Next: The Radical Unrealised Potential of Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 
http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/54.

Risam, Roopika and micha cardenas. 2015. “De/Postcolonial Digital Humanities.” http://dhtraining.org/hilt/course/depostcolonial-digital-humanities/.

Risam. Roopika. 2018. New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Rise Up! https://riseupfeministarchive.ca/.

Rose, Emma and Alison Cardinal. 2018. “Participatory Video Methods in UX: Sharing Power with Users to Gain Insights into Everyday Life.” Communication Design Quarterly, 6, no. 2: 9-20.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa E. Kirsch. 2012. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

SAADA: South Asian American Digital Archive. https://www.saada.org/.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.

Sanchez-Martin, Cristina, Hirsu, Lavinia, Gonzales, Laura, & Sara P. Alvarez. 2019. “Pedagogies of Digital Composing through a Translingual Approach.” Computers and Composition: 1–18.

Sayers, Jentery. 2016. “Dropping the Digital.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/88.

Simmons, W. Michele, and Jeffrey T. Grabill. 2007. “Toward a Civic Rhetoric for Technologically and Scientifically Complex Places: Invention, Performance, and Participation.” College Composition and Communication: 419–448.

Slave Voyages. Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. https://www.slavevoyages.org/.

Torn Apart/Separados. http://xpmethod.plaintext.in/torn-apart/volume/2/index.

“Women’s Studies.” The University of Michigan Library. https://guides.lib.umich.edu/c.php?g=282777&p=1884212.

About the Authors

Bibhushana Poudyal is currently a doctoral student and Assistant Instructor in the Rhetoric and Writing Studies program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Her research areas are: rethinking South Asia, depatriarchal/feminist and de/post/anticolonial critical digital archiving, Critical Digital Humanities, and Digital Humanities in transnational contexts. She is also a researcher and Honorary Overseas Digital Humanities Consultant at two South Asian research centers CASSA (Center for Advanced Studies in South Asia) and SAFAR (South Asian Foundation for Academic Research).

Laura Gonzales studies and practices multilingual, community-driven technology design. She is the author of Sites of Translation: What Multilinguals Can Teach Us About Digital Writing and Rhetoric (University of Michigan Press 2018), which was awarded the 2016 Sweetland/University of Michigan Press Digital Rhetoric Collaborative Book Prize. In the Fall of 2019, Laura will be an Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Cultural Rhetorics in the English Department at the University of Florida. You can learn more about her work at www.gonzlaur.com.

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Born-Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom

Abstract

This case study describes a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at a small liberal arts college. This course explored the concept of “born-digital archives” and asked the following questions: How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented and fragile knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will continue to serve as record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant?

The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We examined issues related to the ethics of appraisal, privacy, digital obsolescence, underrepresented communities, media studies, and collective memory. A series of hands-on lab sessions gave students the technical skills to create their own web archives on the Archive-It platform. For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices and concerns, as well as our personal and collective responsibilities as media producers and consumers. This article addresses the lessons learned when adapting professional practices for an undergraduate audience.

Introduction

“The average lifespan of a webpage is 100 days.” This striking statistic has made its way into several popular magazine articles in the last few years. These articles, published in places like The Atlantic (LaFrance 2015) and The New Yorker (Lepore 2015) are alarmist in tone, but they do dispel the notion that the web is a place of permanence. The mourning period for Geocities may be over, but the recent shuttering of Storify, and Photobucket’s “breaking of the Internet” by blocking image links for thousands of users following a subscription restructuring (Notopoulos 2017) remind us that our content will not be available in perpetuity. Even the source of this statistic was hard to track down due to link rot.[1]

It was experiences similar to this one—the troublesome journey through dead links to verify a citation—that inspired the creation of a first-year undergraduate seminar on the topic of born-digital archives, as a way to engage students in the realities of accessing and constructing a historical record. One of the exciting outcomes of the popularity of digital humanities projects in the undergraduate classroom is the increased engagement with the material and staff of local archives and special collections. For college students born in the twenty-first century, these DH projects create a tangible connection with a past where letters, ledgers, and newspapers were the primary modes of mass communication and record keeping. But what about the artifacts of our time? We produce millions of records on a daily basis in the form of email, social media, and the detritus of a 24-hour news cycle. Will these records even survive 100 days? How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented, fragile, and ephemeral knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will survive as a record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant? Digital archivists are starting to figure out how to handle the vast volumes of data at risk. Just as importantly, they are working to establish best practices for ethical collecting. Is anything on the web fair game for capture? Is it right to ignore robots.txt? For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices, as well as their own responsibilities as media producers and consumers.

This View from the Field will describe a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at Washington and Lee University.[2] Since this course was taught at the introductory level in a multi-disciplinary environment, its methods and assignments could be adapted to a variety of classes. The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We began with reflective conversations on the experience of being a “digital native,” and then moved on to exploring the concepts and skills necessary to create a born-digital archive using the Archive-It platform.[3] This case study will share the lessons learned while adapting professional archival practices for an undergraduate audience.

Course Design and Framing

How do born-digital objects and records change the way we approach teaching? There is an abundance of literature on teaching with archival material and digital technologies. A search for model courses returns digital history courses similar to Shawn Graham’s “Crafting Digital History”[4] and graduate-level courses on digital preservation from library and information programs. Creating a seminar on born-digital archives required adapting these graduate-level models to an undergraduate audience unfamiliar with the professional and methodological practices of archivists and historians.

Because our course explored new territory, it was essential to find readings that exposed students to the rich scholarly conversation around archival principles without weighing them down with jargon. Several texts met these criteria and were instrumental in shaping the course. Abbey Smith Rumsey’s When We Are No More (2016) provides a high-level view of our relationship with information. From the ancient Greeks to the development of modern science, Rumsey contextualizes the modern information revolution for students who were born after the invention of Google and reminds us that “we have a lot of information from the past about how people have made these choices before” (Rumsey 2016, 7). For the nuts and bolts of digital preservation, we relied on Trevor Owens’s Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (2017), available as a pre-print at the time of the course. Not only is Owens well respected in the digital preservation world, his writing is engaging and approachable for undergraduates. Owens’s purpose for the text, offering “a path for getting beyond the hyperbole and the anxiety of ‘the digital’ and establish[ing] a baseline of practice” (Owens 2017, 6) fit well with the goals of the course. Our final course text, The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and Present (Brügger and Schroeder 2017), was essential for modeling the way scholars make meaning from born-digital archives. Ian Milligan’s chapter, “Welcome to the web: The online community of Geocities during the early years of the World Wide Web,” contextualizes Geocities in its time and provides examples of computational approaches to web archives (Brügger and Schroeder 2017).

The learning objectives for the course, listed below, drew from overlapping frameworks.

  • Students will learn and be able to apply the principles of archival theory and practice.
  • Students will think critically about the use and creation of digital records in their own lives and communities.
  • Students will analyze “born digital” archives through the lens of their chosen discipline(s).
  • Students will practice methods for collecting and preserving born-digital archives by conducting their own digital preservation project.

These objectives gesture toward the established digital humanities learning outcomes from A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities[5] (Burdick et al. 2012), adopted by our curricular initiative. These outcomes emphasize the ability to assess information technologies and practice design thinking. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education served as this course’s backbone (Association of College and Research Libraries 2015).[6] Students were asked to think critically about information in every assignment. From writing an annotated bibliography to creating metadata for their web archive, students moved from savvy information consumers to thoughtful information producers. The lab exercises drew from Bryn Mawr’s Digital Competencies initiative and framework. Students developed “digital survival skills” like file structure navigation, troubleshooting, and digital writing and publishing skills like HTML and CSS (Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

Structure and Assignments

This course[7] took place during a twelve-week term in the winter of 2018. We met for ninety minutes twice a week and divided the week into discussion and lab days. Thematically, the course began with three weeks of introductions to the major concepts of the course: the idea of the “digital native,” collective memory, record keeping, and archives as institutions. The first assignment was a personal essay on these concepts and provided an initial indication of students’ comprehension and writing ability. Starting with this framing gave students an opportunity to share personal information and ultimately created a strong sense of community within the class.

In week four, we transitioned out of the personal sphere with a visit to the university library’s Special Collections and Archives department. After an introduction to the unit and its operations, students formed small groups and selected from a small pool of manuscript collections. For the second assignment, students unpacked each collection to learn about its creator, context, and provenance. The hands-on experience with archival sources readied them to consider individual archival principles like original order and respect des fonds (the idea that archival records should be grouped by creator). We even discussed the role and resources of the Special Collections and Archives department within our institutional context.

After week seven, we devoted each week to discussing one aspect of the records management lifecycle—appraisal, acquisition, arrangement and description, access, and outreach. Students worked toward their final project through a series of assignments: an annotated bibliography of existing born-digital collections and scholarly articles on a potential topic, a proposal for their born-digital collection, a process log, a short presentation, and a final reflection. Their final project was conducted through an educational partnership with Archive-It, a web archiving service. For a fee, we received 15GB of space in an Archive-It account and a live training session from an Archive-It staff member. Students selected ten websites on a topic of their choosing, from NFL protests to cryptocurrency.[8] They crawled each of their URLs to create a snapshot that would be preserved by the Internet Archive. The process log was the primary graded product to ensure that platform difficulties did not unevenly affect students.

Labs and Technical Skills

Throughout the course, we held a series of lab days to learn the technical skills necessary for the web archiving project. Lab days were relaxed and instructions were available on the course website so students could work at their own pace. Grouping students by operating system helped with peer-to-peer problem solving when technical errors occurred. On the first day, we built simple websites with HTML and CSS—essential languages for troubleshooting captured websites in Archive-It. Another lab session focused on the command line, using existing tutorials like “The Command Line Crash Course (Shaw n.d.).[9] This skill came in useful when a guest speaker led a workshop on Twarc, a command line tool for capturing social media data (specifically Twitter), created by Documenting the Now.[10] One of the most engaging lab days was spent making glitch art to complement our discussion of file fixity in digital objects. We modified images and audio by opening the files in a text editor and scrambling the content to demonstrate the fragility of digital files.

All of the labs contributed to improving computer and web literacies. Despite their reputation as digital natives, most of the first-year students did not know much about how the web worked. Working with HTML or the command line was an exciting look behind the curtain. Not only did the labs improve specific skills, they helped students become comfortable learning and troubleshooting digital tools.

Results

Students successfully achieved the goals of this course. The primary challenge from the instructor’s point of view was translating professional concepts to a first-year audience. The projects and lab activities were essential in bringing archival principles to life. The opportunity to work with manuscript collections was a highlight for many students and let them experience the realities of archival work. By using the Archive-It platform, students created something that would live beyond them and the bounds of the course. Working with their own topic was both exciting and challenging. It created a strong level of investment, but required explicit training in generating an appropriate research agenda.

Overall, most students easily met the first two learning objectives of learning archival principles and thinking critically about their own digital footprint. Student performance was uneven regarding the more analytical objectives, such as analyzing existing born-digital archives and creating their own collection. Project-based assignments were new to these first-year students, as was the emphasis on process over product. Student evaluations were positive, with most citing the value of learning about an underrepresented field and gaining a new perspective. However, from the instructor perspective, the best method of assessment would be to track the information literacy practices of the students throughout their college career. As the digital humanities curriculum initiative transitions into a digital culture and information minor, hopefully this type of assessment will be possible.

Conclusion

A course centered on archival research, whatever form it may take, is an ideal vehicle for teaching a range of scholarly practices and content areas. It is important for current students to be able to assess and understand the digital content they consume and produce every day. A course on born-digital archives opens the possibilities beyond specific manuscript collections or institutional records to anything on the web. Students held a range of opinions on the trustworthiness of the government and private institutions as preservers of the cultural record, but they all recognized the value in taking ownership of your data and preventing gaps and biases in collections. Their reflections consistently mentioned the importance of community-created and -controlled archives. Hopefully this case study inspires other instructors to make use of born-digital archives in their teaching.

Notes

[1] “The Signal,” the Library of Congress’s blog on digital stewardship, cites a Washington Post article (Ashenfelder 2011) as the source for this statistic, but their embedded link results in a 404 for an individual’s blog. Tracking down the Washington Post article in a subscription-based newspaper database indicates that the quote was attributed to Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, though no context or evidence is given.

[2] More information is available at https://digitalhumanities.wlu.edu/.

[3] Archive-It is a subscription-based web archiving service offered by the Internet Archive. The university library sponsored an “Educational Partnership” account for this course. Archive-It works with a variety of partners, including K-12 schools. They can be found at http://archive-it.org/.

[4] Available at http://site.craftingdigitalhistory.ca/.

[5] Available at http://jeffreyschnapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D_H_ShortGuide.pdf.

[6] Available at http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

[7] The course website is hosted on the GitBook platform and synced with the instructor’s GitHub account: https://mackenziekbrooks.gitbooks.io/dh-180-born-digital/content/.

[8] The final projects can be accessed here: https://archive-it.org/organizations/1374.

[9] Available at https://learnpythonthehardway.org/book/appendixa.html.

[10] Documenting the Now is a collaborative effort to build community and tools around social media preservation. It can be accessed at https://www.docnow.io/.

Bibliography

Ashenfelder, Mike. 2011. “The Average Lifespan of a Webpage” The Signal. November 8, 2011. http://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/2011/11/the-average-lifespan-of-a-webpage/.

Association of College and Research Libraries. 2015. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” February 9, 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

Brügger, Niels, and Ralph Schroeder, eds. 2017. The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and the Present. London: UCL Press. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1542998/1/The-Web-as-History.pdf.

Bryn Mawr College. n.d. “Digital Competencies” Accessed June 29, 2018. https://www.brynmawr.edu/digitalcompetencies.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, eds. 2012. Digital Humanities. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

LaFrance, Adrienne. 2015. “Raiders of the Lost Web.” The Atlantic, October 14, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/raiders-of-the-lost-web/409210/.

Lepore, Jill. 2015. “What the Web Said Yesterday.” The New Yorker, January 19, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/26/cobweb.

Notopoulos, Katie. 2017. “Photobucket Is Holding People’s Photos For ‘Ransom.’” BuzzFeed. July 7, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/katienotopoulos/photobucket-just-killed-a-chunk-of-internet-history.

Owens, Trevor. 2017. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. https://osf.io/preprints/lissa/5cpjt.

Rumsey, Abby Smith. 2016. When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Shaw, Zed A. n.d. “Appendix A: Command Line Crash Course.” Learn Python the Hard Way. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://learnpythonthehardway.org/book/appendixa.html.

About the Author

Mackenzie Brooks is Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Librarian at Washington and Lee University. There, she teaches in the Digital Culture and Information minor and coordinates Digital Humanities initiatives. Her research focuses on digital pedagogy, scholarly text encoding, and metadata.

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